Category Archives: Scottish Whisky

Wrestling With Peat

I am not usually into peated whiskeys. However, lately I gave Laphroaig 10 another chance and discovered that it wasn’t so bad after all. I can put down Compass Box’s The Peat Monster and not gag. I can even appreciate the Lagavulin 16 every once in a while. However, I have not been able to handle Ardbeg’s super peaty Uigeadail. My Scottish Gaelic is a bit rusty but I alway thought it must mean “sweat from a sheep’s taint.”*

Among whiskey enthusiasts (or at least whiskey writers), I am in the minority. Uigeadail has won several awards and tops everyones ‘Best of…’ list. It does not bother me to disagree with Jim Murray (author of The Whisky Bible). We have very different taste preferences. But when John Hansell of Malt Advocate gives something a high rating, I usually like it.

So, I decided to take my new found appreciation/tolerance for peat down to St. Andrew’s Bar and take another stab at the Uigeadail. When I attended that class with Ethan Kelley last week, he spoke briefly of pairings and recommended pairing peaty whiskies with seafood and Guinness. Plus, yesterday was the 250th birthday of Guinness. So, I ordered the fish and chips, the Uigaedail and a pint. I brought my friend Levia and her beau along for moral support. Levia tends toward the peaty whiskies and is long-time drinking buddy.

Before starting, I add some water (at 54.2% ABV, it can handle a fair amount of H2O). The nose on Uigeadail is smoky, peaty, and briny with hints of leather and honey. All put together, it smells like a well-worn shoe (perhaps a shoe that you wear while you barbeque on a beach by the North Sea). Normally, my opinion would already be tainted by the strong nose, but I decided to look past my prejudices and keep going. I take a reluctant sip after some fish and a long draw from my Guinness. This is where I would normally be spitting and sputtering and verbally abusing this whisky and anyone who likes it. However, my tastes have changed and the pairings are doing their job. This a bold whisky, firm and almost chewy. There is a sweetness I have never tasted before. I can taste the usual tar, smoke and licorice, but they are balanced and dance on the tongue (although with a heavy step, like a reel or polka rather than a waltz). The finish seems to go on forever. Indeed, I can still taste it the next day.

I can see why this whisky is beloved by so many.  That said, it’s not for everybody.  Uigeadail is kind of an old man’s whisky.  As we age, our tastes tend to change toward bolder, more pungent flavors.  If you are already a fan of dark wrapped cigars or are a regular smoker, this may be a good fit for you.  If you are someone who prefers more subtle flavors, head for Speyside malts or an nice Irish.  Come back to this one later in life.

For those of you who have tried the Uigeadail and totally dig it, you might look for the new Ardbeg Super Nova for an even peatier kick.  I have not tried it yet.  I was waiting until I knew that I could do it justice.  Maybe next time.

*The folks at Ardbeg tell me that it is named after the lake from which the water is drawn. Perhaps sweaty sheep bathe there.

In the Land of Giants

This week, I had the opportunity to attend a class at Astor Center, hosted by Ethan Kelley of Brandy Library. The topic of the this class, “In the Land of Giants – An In-depth Look at the Boutique Distilleries of Scotland.” This class is actually part of a series, the first was about peated whiskies, the last will be about distilleries that have been moth-balled.

For this class, Mr. Kelley gave us a whirlwind history as we tasted our way through several small distilleries. Our first dram was the Hazelburn 8yo. Hazelburn is distilled at Cambeltown distillery Springbank. It seems that the owners of Springbank bought all the names from the distilleries that died in Cambeltown. This one is very light in color. There are hints of peat and brine on the nose although I’m not sure if this is actually a peated whisky. The palate is light but complex with only traces of peat. It is triple distilled which gives it a very clean feel and a smooth finish.

Next up, is the Edradour 10yo. Mr. Kelley painted a picture of this distillery that made me put it at the top of my list for what to do next time I visit Scotland. Edradour is a very small operation (3 guys) with a still that is barely big enough to be called legal. This whisky is very interesting. To my sniffer, the nose smelled like peanut butter and caramel. The palate was full bodied, spicy and nutty.

Benromach Traditional was next on the list. Very pale in color, Benromach Traditional smells like a doctor’s office. Very weak elements of peat and a vague sweetness mark the palate, but the alcohol is strong. The finish is so short and the whisky so forgettable that you are not quite sure that you actually drank it. At least five more years in a barrel would do this one some good. Skip it!

The best of the first four was the Tomintoul 16yo. The color on this is golden honey like jewel quality amber (it spent some time in a sherry cask). The nose is floral almost like a ladies perfume. I got the image of laundry drying on a line in a field of lavender when I inhaled deeply. The flavor was robust but balanced with wonderful honey notes. Unfortunately, the distillery has changed hands since this bottling, so who’s to say what the future will hold for Tomintoul. Try to get your hands on a bottle of this ASAP.

This is when things started getting really interesting. The Arran Cognac Cask. You can look for it, but I doubt you will find it. It is a single cask bottling of a distillery with limited distribution in the first place. Light amber with a rose tint, this smelled salty, sweet, and nutty with some Cognac notes. By this time, my notes start getting a little less descriptive. For the palate, I wrote “sweet, floral, and amazing.” Lucky for me, there was an extra place setting in the classroom, so I scored two drams of this one. Cognac casks are really expensive, so don’t expect to see this one (or one like it) any time soon. This was an expensive experiment. It is almost a shame that it turned out so well.

Next was the Bruichladdich Rocks. Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich is probably one of the most innovative and bat-shit crazy distillers in the world. He is constantly being recognized for his lucrative experiments at Bruichladdich. One thing he hasn’t had since leaving Bowmore, is a consistent product. Enter Peat, Rocks, and Waves. These three distinct expressions will be a consistent part of the Bruichladdich line for the foreseeable future. Rocks is an unpeated malt, with a nose like smoked white cheddar cheese. Even without the peat, you get the other great qualities of Islay. This is a rich, robust whisky that is far more balanced that any of it’s peated brethren. Mr. Kelley described this one as Talisker light.

Benriach 10yo ‘Curiositas’ is part of a series of peated Benriach. Strangely, this was not a planned venture into peated whisky, but curious finds from the dark corners of the warehouse. Just as the Rocks was everything you love about Islay without the peat, Curiositas soothes you with everything you love about Speyside with a hefty kick of peat.

The last (and strangest) whisky of the night was Ballechin Madeira (distilled at Edradour). This is a peated whisky aged completely in Madeira casks. That’s right, not a bourbon cask or even sherry. This is one of the most interesting whiskies I have ever had. The nose was quite peaty and the palate was like a peated brandy. This one is expensive and rare, but if you ever have the opportunity to try it, take it.

So, that was my latest adventure in whisky. I really enjoy these guided tastings. I always learn something and have a good time. I really like events like WhiskyFest too, but the free-for-all atmosphere on the main floor can be as tiring as it is exhilirating. If you are interested in the class on dead distilleries, I believe there are still tickets available here.

Fad Focus #2: Wood Finishes

Today I want to talk about the next part of my multi-part series on the notable fads in whiskey today. I started this series a couple of weeks ago talking about the growing levels of peat used in whiskey production. Today I want to talk about wood finishing.

What is wood finishing you ask? Wood finishing is the process of taking mature whiskey from its aging barrel and putting it into another barrel, hogshead, etc. to impart additional characteristics on the whiskey beyond its normal profile. Barrels that previously held different wines and other spirit are used to varying degrees of success to add some part or character of the barrel’s prior occupant to the new whiskey. Port barrels can add color. Rum barrels can add sweetness. Some of the previously seen variations include Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tokaji, sherry, port, rum, etc.

Glenmorangie was one of the first major pioneers of this technique. They originally came out with a range of 12 year old single malt scotches that included finishes in sherry, port, and burgundy wood among others. Many distilleries, mostly scotch distilleries picked up on this trend as a way to offer new and different varieties of their spirits in a relatively quick amount of time. Remember, for scotch most of their product doesn’t see the light of day for at least 10 years. That’s a long lead time for innovation. Whiskey can be wood finished for any amount of time from around 6 months to 6 years or more. Glenmorangie’s wood finished range spent 10 years as regular Glenmorangie and then spent another two years in wood finishing. Even in their case two years is a lot quicker turn around than ten.

How did all this innovation and creativity turn out? Originally, not too bad. There were and still are a number of products that really did well with wood finishing. One of my personal favorites is the 21 year old Glenfiddich Havana Reserve which was finished in Havana Rum casks. Mmm..tasty stuff. But as with most things, over proliferation leads towards some less than stellar examples. We’ve chided Glenmorangie on their Burgundy Wood finished whiskey and it really was pretty bad. “Was” being the appropriate word because they have since discontinued it. Another humorous example of how far this particular fad went was an attempt a number of years ago to finish scotch in used Tabasco barrels. The resulting product was an undrinkable concoction that was repackaged and sold as condiment called Hot Scotch. Jumping the shark a little? I think so.

So where is wood finishing now? It seems to be on the down swing. There are still a number of products out there, both good and bad that tout wood finishing. There continues to be a few new ones popping up from time to time. However, you may not recognize some of these newer ones. “Wood Finish” has become passé in the scotch industry. The new nomenclature? Glenmorangie, the granddaddy of all wood finishers now refers to their products as “Extra Matured”. My personal favorite is Bruichladdich. They refer to their program by the acronym “A.C.E”, meaning “Additional Cask Enhancement”. Wood finishes aren’t dead yet. This particular fad hasn’t quite played out. What will come in the future? Who knows? One particular bright spot seems to be Buffalo Trace. Bourbon wood finishing? Yep. They have a new line of very limited releases under their Experimental Collection. I have not had the opportunity to try any of these but I hear good things.

So what does all this mean? A wider variety of whiskey to enjoy. That’s never a bad thing. However, as with all whiskeys it is a good idea to try before you buy. Just because you love Glenmorangie’s Original 10 year old doesn’t mean the Burgundy Wood should be a staple of your home bar.

Drink wisely my friends.

– Richard

Taste of… The Collector’s Cabinet

Matt and I have discussed, at length the merits of offering reviews on whiskeys that are no longer available.  The argument against it is that if we review a dram that is out of this world then it would offer nothing to our readers but frustration at not being able to procure such a fine spirit.  This was our stance from the outset of Whisk(e)y Apostle.

As time went by we started thinking about this idea in a different light.  We realized that there is something to offer our readers by reviewing the occasional rare whiskey.  From a collector’s standpoint there are other resources available offering assistance in how collectable or valuable certain whiskeys are but rarely anything on taste. (As a general rule, we here at Whisk(e)y Apostle do not advocate the collecting of whiskey.  It is made to drink after all!)

So if you find a rare bottle of whiskey, how are you to know if it’s worth purchasing for the purpose of consumption?  That’s where we hope to offer what little assistance we can.  Matt and I aren’t exactly rolling in dough so this will not be a regular part of our reviews but we’ll do it whenever we get the opportunity.

To kick us off we thought we talk a wonderful whisky from Compass Box called The Spice Tree.  There is an unfortunate story behind why this great whisky is no longer in production.  I’m not going to reproduce the sad tale here but if you are interested further information can be found here (in the “Past Whiskies” section).

The Spice Tree

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Formerly produced by Compass Box Whisky Company
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky46% ABV/92 Proof

What the distillery says:

A natural, deep, gold-brown color and a rich nose with spices such as clove and nutmeg, and sweet stewed fruits. Palate is soft, sweet, deep and rich with a malt whisky fruitiness embellished by rich spice. Very long.

What Richard says:

Nose: Scotch rolled in a warm bourbon blanket?  If I didn’t know what this was it would really keep me guessing.  Water opens up the nose to honey and floral sweetness.  Quite lovely.
Palate: The wood is the first and last thing you taste but not in the way you might think.  It’s not the tired over wooded flavor of an over aged whiskey.  It’s more like carrying your dram on a walk through the forest.  It’s a fresher wood taste.  There is a minor honeyed sweetness that almost hides from you.  The spice there but much more understated than the name suggests.  There are a lot of nutty flavors and at the very end of the palate I swear I get a hint of spearmint.
Finish: Much smoother than I expected but that really is par for John Glasser’s work.  Spice, nut, and wood remain after the palate is emptied.  It’s almost like peppered walnut bark.
Comments: As unfortunate as it is, this is a discontinued product. If you happen across a bottle at a reasonable price I would highly recommend picking it up.  I can’t give it a “Must Buy” because of the scarcity but it really deserves top honors.
Rating: Must Try

What Matt says:
Nose: Fox glove honey, caramel, wildflowers, and cardamom.
Palate: Like drinking a nice cup of mulled cider by a fresh cut Christmas tree.  Wood, evergreen, mulling spices, cooked fruit (apples and apricots).  The ultimate ‘comfort’ whisky.  Complex without being uppity.
Finish: Oak, white pepper, and pecan husks linger with a touch of caramel sweetness.  This whisky is incredibly smooth with very little burn on the tongue or in the throat.
Comments: My official rating for this will be a “Must Try” for the reasons that Richard states above.  However, if you see a bottle of this, buy it.  If you see two, let me know.  I will buy the other one.  I love this whisky and lament it’s passing.  When the last drop falls from my bottle, I will shed a tear.
Rating: Must Try

Overall Rating:   Must Try

Closing Comments: A lot of discontinued whiskeys are phased out due unpleasant factors (Glenmorangie Burgundy Wood Finish) or diminished stocks (Ardbeg 17 Year) but the Spice Tree is the unfortunate victim of politics.  There is little lacking in this quality dram.  If you are fortunate enough to come across a bottle or dram, by all means drink up.


Drinking In A Depressed Economy

Despite the worldwide economic crisis, the whiskey industry continues to see growth. While people are spending less at bars, liquor stores are feeling flush. Unfortunately for the consumer, this means that prices are going up as supply comes down. So, you ask, how am I to expand my whiskey experience without going broke? Well, that is the subject of my latest blog, the best values in whisk(e)y.

Face it, if you are on a budget, you are not going to go out and buy a 25 year old Macallan. However, that does not mean that you have to subsist on Rebel Yell and Bell’s Scottish whisky. You can get some bang for your buck.

Of all the types of whisk(e)y, bourbon is going to give you the best value. If you live in Kentucky, or a state with low interstate and alcohol tariffs, then this is doubly true for you. Finding a decent bourbon for under $25 should not be difficult, regardless of where you live. To my mind, the standard issue Buffalo Trace or the yellow label Four Roses bourbon is the best you can get at this price point. For a few dollars more, you can upgrade to the Four Roses Small Batch or Elmer T. Lee.

If you can handle it, rye whiskey is also a great value. Russell’s Reserve 6yo is quite affordable, but my recommendation is the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond 100 proof. Russell’s Reserve is still a little harsh for my taste.

You will not see us write about Canadian whisky very often, but one of the best deals in whisk(e)y is Forty Creek Barrel Select. In my experience, you typically need to spend a lot of money to get a Canadian whisky suitable for anything other than a cocktail. Forty Creek is the first affordable (around $25) Canadian whisky that has a great taste and a full bodied profile that stands up to other whiskeys (stay tuned to Whisk(e)y Apostle for a formal review of 40 Creek).

For other whiskeys, we are going to have to go up a bit to get a decent dram, but you still don’t have to break the bank.

If you are looking for a deal with Irish whiskey, I will once again suggest Redbreast. Redbreast is one of a handful of pure pot stilled whiskeys from Ireland. You will never find another whiskey this complex at this price (around $45). The nose and palate are both filled with sweetness and botanicals. If you don’t have a bottle of this on your shelf, shame on you. You can also pick up some Irish blends (Black Bush is my favorite). Stock standard Jameson or Bushmill’s are also great values, but will likely not take you on the sensuous journey that you should expect from your dram.

When it comes to Scottish whisky, most distilleries offer a 10yo or 12yo option for a reasonable price. Chance are, if you like a more expensive version, you will like the economy version. Just don’t expect the same nuance. You can also get a deal on older whiskies by purchasing independent bottlings. However, unless you can taste before you buy or can find a review you trust, you can really get burned on independent bottles that do not retain any of the characteristics of the distillery from which they originated.

Blended Scotches are always an option, but most good blends cost as much as single malts. Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle are trusted brands. If you are going to go with Johnnie Walker, you should be able to find the Green label for less that $50, the Black for less than $40, and the Red for less than $30.

If you want to get the most of your whisk(e)y selections, find some friends who are also into whiskey and coordinate your purchases. Then get together and have a tasting. After all, what use is a good dram if you can’t share?

*Prices are estimated. Actual prices in your area could vary greatly.*